Commentary Magazine


Is Israel’s Controversial NGO Law Simply a ‘Foreign Agent Registration Act’?

Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Danny Ayalon, has written a persuasive defense of the Knesset’s new inquiry panel that will investigate whether Israeli NGOs involved in the anti-Israel delegitimization movement are funded by foreign governments. Critics of the initiative have compared it to McCarthyism and say that it unfairly targets groups for their political beliefs. But Ayalon argues that the law is no different from the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act:

The Knesset panel of inquiry is simply about transparency. If there are groups who receive funds from foreign nations then the Israeli public deserves the right to know. Some voices have mistakenly declared that this type of inquiry is reminiscent of undemocratic regimes. Perhaps they should take a look at America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act which is, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website, a “disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”

But while FARA laws apply equally to all individuals and organizations, regardless of political affiliation, it’s unclear whether Israel’s new law will apply only to groups involved in the delegitimization movement. Plus, FARA rules put the onus on foreign agents to register and disclose their own affiliations, while the whole concept of an investigative government panel is much more proactive. The American Jewish Committee, which normally doesn’t comment on Israeli domestic policy, issued a harsh criticism of the new initiative yesterday.

“The selective targeting of groups critical of the IDF runs counter to Israel’s legal and political tradition, and does no service to the one state that is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East,” said AJC executive director David Harris in a press release. “If there is a concern that foreign, and possibly malign, forces are funding civic or political groups in Israel, then let there be a debate on the advisability of requiring full disclosure of the revenues, and their sources, of all such groups across the political spectrum.”

I definitely applaud the idea of a FARA law for Israel, but I agree with the AJC that the policy shouldn’t be based on the politics of the organization. News reports have indicated that the law singles out left-wing delegitimization groups; but from Ayalon’s defense, I get the sense that it applies to all NGOs. Of course, the Knesset obviously doesn’t have time to investigate every NGO in Israel, and I’m sure politics will play a sizable role in which organizations ultimately get scrutinized.